For the last couple of years, most of the serious talk about the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its heavyweight division has focused on five names—Shane Carwin, Junior dos Santos, Brock Lesnar, Frank Mir and Cain Velasquez.
Roy Nelson's name has surfaced a few times and you might also throw Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in there, but those discussions were usually out of respect. Minotauro's days as a serious title contender amongst the biggest boppers were ended by Mir in December of 2008.
Frank subsequently fell from the ranks pretty quickly, but the rest proved to be serious threats atop the 265 pound ladder. In fact, until Velasquez defends his title at least once, you can argue that Carwin, JDS, Lesnar and the champ are still clawing over each other for an extended lounge in the heavyweight throne.
Well stop the presses because, given Matt Mitrione's exploits at UFC Fight for the Troops 2 on Saturday night, the quartet might be forced to absorb another member by the end of 2011.
Quickly Scaling a Steep Learning Curve
It'd be foolish to suggest the former National Football League defensive lineman is ready to tackle (yes!) one of the aforementioned top contenders at this early date, but keep an eye on his progress this year.
Meathead has already shown remarkable progress since introducing himself to the mixed martial arts world in 2009 on the 10th season of The Ultimate Fighter.
On the show, he would often ramble on about emotional demons or self-imposed drama of a different variety. Perhaps it was all part of "brand-building" or maybe it was a function of being away from his loved ones. The point is that Matt seems to be much more psychologically well-adjusted than he did at first blush.
The pseudo-psycho we saw on TUF didn't sound equipped to deal with the cranial demands of the sport—whether it's the wear of training/competing or the brute-force task of learning new techniques, Mixed Martial Arts appears to put a considerable strain on the ol' noodle.
Thus far, however, it seems Mitrione is turning his nickname into an ironic one.
The big fella has demonstrated better understanding of MMA fundamentals in each of his bouts. For instance, his three minute destruction of Tim Hague featured more effective combinations, more fluid footwork and a more confident take down defense.
All three elements require mental discipline to learn, practice and incorporate during live fire. Which is what Mitrione's done.
Obviously an Athletic Animal
Of course, evolution into an elite fighter also requires some special raw ingredients and the former Purdue Boilermaker has those in spades.
You don't have to take my word for it, you just have to watch Mitrione fight to understand he's working with some Darwinian perks.
Much like the recently deposed heavyweight king, Brock Lesnar, Meathead moves with a lightness and ease befitting a much smaller man. Because he's less massive than Brock, Matt is actually quite a bit quicker and more agile on his feet. It's not often you see a 265 pounder bouncing around the Octagon, but that's how I'd describe Mitrione's movement during his brief nastiness with Hague.
He also exhibited some wonderful balance, foiling a single-leg take down attempt that looked like a forgone conclusion, by hopping his way out of danger.
And you know the monster has sincere power.
Hague might take a lot of grief in cyberspace because of his seven second knockout at the hands of Todd Duffee, but the Thrashing Machine is no cupcake. He was tough enough to last three rounds against Joey Beltran and Chris Tuchscherer, and both those heavyweights hit like mules. Furthermore, Tim should've been riding a wave of positivity as he was coming off two knockouts (granted, they were outside the UFC).
Yet Meathead dispatched him without breaking a sweat—he easily avoided everything but a few retaliatory leg kicks, floored Hague twice and basically landed with anything he unleashed. It was impressive.
But Here's the Rub
It's time to pump the brakes slightly on the love fest.
There is a lot to like about Matt Mitrione, but not nearly enough at the moment. He's only fought professionally four times and though he's undefeated, check the roster of victims—Marcus Jones, Kimbo Slice, Joey Beltran and Hague. That's not exactly a who's who of 265-pound royalty.
Nor should it be since Meathead is just starting to dip his toes in the MMA waters.
But he must tussle with some true challenges rather than what passes for cannon fodder in the new UFC heavyweight division before he can claim to be ready for the big time. Additionally, he needs to show some level of comfort and/or competency on the ground before he can be locked in a cage with the best in the weight class.
And Mitrione must do it all quickly because he'll turn 33 in July.
That ain't old, but it ain't young either (and I speak from intimate knowledge as I turn 33 in October).
So the Answer Is No, Not Quite Yet
The good news, of course, is that there's no shortage of quality adversaries against whom Meathead can continue his progress.
He seems to have a cute little back-and-forth going with Pat Barry so that might be a fine matchup. His fellow ex-NFLer Brendan Schaub is also out there as is Stefan Struve. If it's a real test Mitrione's after, he should ask for a scrap with a notorious ground tactician because that's the obvious hole in his combat game at the moment.
Of course, Matt Mitrione has been eliminating weaknesses left and right for the past year.
If he keeps going at this rate, he won't have many left by the end of 2011.
And then the answer becomes yes.